With their roster set and a head coach in place, the Los Angeles Lakers march toward 2014-15 and beyond facing an uphill climb back to playoff and championship contention.
Actually, that doesn't do their present predicament enough justice.
Know that cliche-carting, geriatric golden-ager who peddles some exhausted—not to mention totally untrue—bunkum about having to slog through uphill snowstorms to and from school on foot? That's the Lakers.
That's the intimidating journey they now face.
There is no way to completely avoid it either. There is only the uncertain possibility of the Lakers finding a much-needed, smoothly paved, fair-weather shortcut.
Kobe Bryant and the Immediate Battle
Before looking ahead, it's imperative to look at right now. And right now, the Lakers figure to be overtly and overly dependent on a soon-to-be 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, who appeared in only six games last season.
"It's my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level," Bryant said in July, via ESPN.com.
Indeed, it is. But should it be?
This isn't an almost-playoff-bound Lakers team Bryant is trying to revive. The Lakers weren't even close to elite last season; they weren't even close to good.
Coached by Mike D'Antoni, playing mostly without Bryant and Steve Nash, the Lakers ranked 21st in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. They won 27 games. They schlepped through the worst season in franchise history. No one player is going to reverse their fortunes—not even Bryant.
The shooting guard's protection against traditional thinking is mythical in measure. Long before he suffered a ruptured Achilles, he was viewed as invincible, above pain. This side of realizing he isn't made of steel, Bryant is still not held to the same standards as everyone else.
If and when he returns to form, it won't be surprising. It will be Bryant being Bryant. That aspect of his mystique hasn't changed. Bryant will forever be thought of as this superhuman individual bound to nothing and no one.
Yet even if Bryant recaptures his dominant pep and step, even if he plays like it's 2012-13—with wildly reckless and effective abandon—what does that mean for the Lakers?
Close to nothing, as Silver Screen & Roll's James Lamar fittingly articulates:
It’s reasonable to expect the team to improve upon last season’s 27-win output, but tempered expectations entail only a marginal increase. Bryant should return to reasonable form, especially after missing 76 games last year, but his 2012 campaign (25.5 points per game on 46 percent shooting, a career-best 6.0 assists average) was good enough for only a seven-seed, and that was alongside Dwight Howard.
Operating on the assumption that Bryant can defy time the way he did nearly two years ago counts for little. His splendid, time-thwarting performance couldn't carry a team headlined by another top-15 superstar then; it's not going to ferry the Lakers back to the postseason now.
Not when the second-best player on this team goes by the name Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young or Julius Randle.
Immediately, the Lakers are trapped in this competitive state of oblivion, trying to remain relevant, even though relevancy more likely than not doesn't include ending their one-year postseason drought.
To the Future
Soothing reassurance isn't found when glossing over present-day dilemmas.
Glimpses of tomorrow do not lie in the roster of today. The Lakers' docket is a makeshift placeholder stocked with talent on one-year deals.
Four players are under guaranteed contracts beyond next season, per ShamSports.com—Bryant, Young, Randle and Ryan Kelly. Only one player—Young—is under lock and key beyond 2015-16, though it's safe to say the Lakers will pick up Randle's team option that summer.
That leaves the Lakers with two long-term building blocks at most. Everyone else—from Lin and Boozer, to Ed Davis and Jordan Hill, to Robert Sacre and Kelly—is basically playing for their next contract, whether it's with the Lakers or not.
Pinpointing a future direction is impossible. So much of the Lakers' forthcoming course depends on how impressed or unimpressed they are by this year's auditions and, more importantly, the decision-making process of players they don't even house.
Cap-conserving summers don't get any more blatant than this. The Lakers flirted with Carmelo Anthony headlines and were—out of ritual more than anything—linked to all the big names, but this offseason never figured to carry superstar bombast.
Next summer—and the summer after, when Bryant's contract expires—is when the Lakers will more aggressively pursue free agents. Until then, they're in a holding pattern, like Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding discloses:
The absolute uncertainty as to when some faceless free-agent superstar will choose the Lakers is what makes the suffering that much worse for their fans.
It doesn't even feel like rebuilding. It feels like waiting.
Because it pretty much is.
Waiting is a risky game—one the Lakers have been playing since they traded for, and then lost, Dwight Howard.
Biding their time puts them at the mercy of players wanting to join them. Past prestige will put them in any conversation, but they need a competent core to sell as well. Slapdash stopgaps aren't going to strengthen their sales pitch.
They also find themselves at the market's behest. They can't target players who aren't available.
Kevin Love's arrival once approached formality. One rival executive told CBS Sports' Ken Berger that "everyone" knew he wanted to join the Lakers. But that was in January, ages ago. Love is now on the brink of joining LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Another preeminent free agent is basically off the board. What if that keeps happening? It's already happened with LaMarcus Aldridge, after all:
Aldridge: "I'm happy to stay (in Portland), happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or 2. But ..." (cont)— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) July 8, 2014
What if Marc Gasol is next? Or Rajon Rondo?
In no time at all, the Lakers could find themselves waiting for 2016, when Kevin Durant is available.
The thought, while compelling, is a pipe dream. They're going to have competition from every other team with cap space. He could stay with the Thunder or sign with the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks. He could return home to the Washington Wizards.
Then what? The Lakers will have sat still for nothing, wasting Bryant's swan song in the process, all because they waited and waited and waited, and indentured their rebuild and redemption to events beyond their control.
No Choice but to Soldier On
Worse than anything, the Lakers aren't outfitted in contingency plans. There are none.
Rebuilding through the draft isn't an option. Their 2015 and 2017 first-rounders (top-five protected) belong to the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic, per RealGM. If for some reason the Lakers (are bad enough to) retain those picks, the debts linger until paid.
Best-case scenario has them forfeiting those selections sooner rather than later, by 2017, just so they're free and clear.
When will the Lakers make the playoffs again?
You know, four years from now, in 2018.
Retooling through free agency and continuing this unsettling game of wait and see is their only immediate option. The lone alternative is to tank so hard that they mathematically keep their draft picks. And not even that promises anything when pingpong balls wield so much power.
This plan, this violently uncertain plan, is all the Lakers have. Their road back to the playoffs and title contention is tiled in other teams' players—talents they have neither direct access to, nor realistic guarantees from—and small, sanity-scorning miracles.
Glances into the Lakers' crystal ball, then, yield nothing other than a future obscured by the unpredictability of a team relying on its storied past to rise above a seriously steep uphill climb.